Though he was absent, “Uncle Johnnie” was an overwhelming presence in Fred Salerno’s young life. His picture hung in virtually every room of the house in Queens where the three-generation extended family of 10 lived. Devout Catholics, the family would pray together every Friday and his grandmother would offer up the Rosary in memory of her son, the uncle that Fred never had the opportunity to know.
“I was less than a year old when he died, so I have no first-hand remembrance of him,” Salerno, now a parishioner of Resurrection in Rye, said of his missing uncle. “But my two brothers, Charlie and Peter, and I were very impressed by his story. We knew we had a heroic uncle who had made the ultimate sacrifice over there. It was a point of pride for us...We were told how easy-going and friendly he was, about his athleticism, how handsome he was.”
On June 16, 1944, 10 days after D-Day, the fighting had moved off the beaches and inland into the menacing hedgerows, a maze-like thicket of tangled bushes enclosing small fields and sunken pathways. Staff Sergeant John R. Simonetti from Jackson Heights, Queens, fighting with the 2nd Infantry Division, was training his grenade launcher on a German machine gun nest when he was killed instantly by a sniper’s bullet, likely fired from the church tower in the nearby village of St. Germain d’Elle. In the savage fighting, the body was not recovered. Staff Sergeant Simonetti would be listed as missing in action for the next 66 years.
The family made attempts to find out their soldier’s fate. A military investigation visited the battle site in the 1950s and was able tell the family, thanks to an eyewitness account from a fellow soldier, how he died. But the investigators could not locate the body.
In 1994, as the 50th anniversary of D-Day approached, Salerno and his wife Pat made a pilgrimage to Normandy to pay their respects to his uncle and all the allied soldiers who fought there. They toured the invasion sites and visited the main U.S. cemetery near Pointe-Du-Hoq. Feeling the need to see the place where his uncle had died, Salerno hired a French-speaking guide and went with Pat to St. Germain d’Elle.
“The first thing we noticed was the cornerstone on the church. It had been built in 1946,” Salerno recalled. The old church with the bell tower had been destroyed in the bombardment. In the village they were introduced to an elderly farming couple, the only remaining people in town who had lived there during the battle.
“They embraced us,” said Salerno of his hosts. “They were so warm and very appreciative of the Americans that freed them. The wife offered us coffee. We met her husband in the field where the battle had occurred.” The old farmer told them about the battle and how after the fighting the villagers returned and buried the bodies, both German and American, that had been scattered around. Perhaps he had buried Uncle John, but there was no way to know. Salerno was overwhelmed by the experience of standing on hallowed ground, close to where his uncle had fallen. Before the Salernos left, Fred gave the couple his business card, just in case.
They returned home and told their family about their pilgrimage and what they had learned. “We felt we had done as much as we possibly could,” Salerno acknowledged.
Fifteen years later, just before Memorial Day 2009, Fred Salerno received a telephone call from a Virginia man who said he had information about his uncle. The news hit Salerno like a lightning bolt. Bruce Biggs, a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle organization dedicated to finding and returning the remains of American soldiers lost in action, told Salerno that a construction crew working near St. Germain d’Elle had found the body of an American soldier buried in a shallow grave. Dog tags found nearby bore the name SSGT. John R. Simonetti. Army DNA specialists would later verify the remains were Simonetti’s. A story appeared in the local newspaper and the farmer’s wife, recognizing the soldier’s name, had sent Salerno’s now outdated business card to a local official. By an astonishing coincidence, the French official happened to be Biggs’ brother-in-law.
The business card listed Salerno as vice chairman of NYNEX, a company since merged with Bell Atlantic and subsequently merged again with GTE to form Verizon. The phone number was long out of date and, in any case, Salerno had retired from the company as vice chairman and CFO in 2002. The apparent difficulty did not deter Biggs.
“Bruce deserves all the credit,” Salerno said of Biggs’ dogged search to find the soldier’s kin. “He hung in and made the connection. There was nothing in it for him except to do right by our heroes. He is a true patriot.”
On Oct. 25, Staff Sergeant John Simonetti, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, was buried with more than 100 family members present at Arlington National Cemetery. Cardinal Egan, a friend of the family, celebrated the Funeral Mass and presided at graveside.
“We felt it would never happen,” Salerno said of the ceremony. “It was very emotional, breathtaking. The cardinal gave an unbelievably moving eulogy. The way I look at it, there were two miracles, Uncle John finally being put to rest in a proper place surrounded by other heroes and the way he brought our family together. It was a wonderful beginning of a legacy that can be passed on to all his relatives.”
Three volleys cracked the autumn air. Taps sounded. An American hero had come home.